Love Tequila and Mezcal? Drink In These Other Agave Spirits

Bottles of Agave
Photo by Paola Murray

For those who already enjoy Tequila and mezcal (and even those who don’t), there’s more in the agave universe to explore. Bartenders and other experts highlight four spirits that have long been part of Mexico’s rich drinks culture and may offer new experiences for spirits lovers.

Comiteco

This spirit is made in the town of Comitan, in the southern state of Chiapas. Its production is a mashup of pulque- and mezcal-making traditions.

Compared to most other agave distillates, Comiteco isn’t made by roasting the plant. It starts with aguamiel, or honey water, a sweet sap harvested from incisions made in the piñas (hearts) and stalks of the agave plant.

The aguamiel is then cooked and fermented. This is the same process used to make pulque, a fizzy beverage that bears a resemblance to kombucha.

“In the case of Comiteco, it never becomes pulque,” says Raza Zaidi, managing partner of the San Francisco-based Back Alley Imports, which imports 9 Guardianes, the only commercial Comiteco currently available in the U.S., along with Wahaka mezcal.

Instead, raw sugar is added during the fermentation process. It’s turned into Comiteco by a still that might be made of clay, copper or stainless steel, and rested in glass. Of note, 9 Guardianes makes an añejo Comiteco that ages in a glass vessel that also contains oak branches.

If you’ve never heard of Comiteco, there’s a reason for that. In the 1960s, the agave variety used to make Comiteco nearly became extinct. It resulted in a government ban on Comiteco production, says Zaidi.

After decades of replanting, the ban was lifted in the 1990s.

“By then, most of the companies that made Comiteco had gone out of business,” he says.

In general, Comiteco has a more funky, pungent character than Tequila or mezcal, Zaidi says.

“It tastes almost more like a rhum agricole than an agave spirit.”

Although Comiteco typically is sipped neat, similar to mezcal, “when you make cocktails with it, you find yourself wanting to replace rum in a Mojito or Daiquiris,” says Zaidi.

Try It

9 Guardianes Blanco Comiteco

9 Guardianes Añejo Comiteco

D’Antaño Comiteco

Raicilla

Spanish for “little root,” raicilla is considered a type of mezcal, a broad umbrella that also includes Tequila. It’s made in Jalisco, the state on Mexico’s Pacific coast better known for the latter.

Raicilla is not made from blue Weber agave, so it can’t be called Tequila.

Instead, its name points to the smaller agave varieties used in its production.

Since it can be made from multiple varieties, it can have great diversity of flavor, according to Alex Valencia, co-owner of New York City’s La Contenta restaurant.

But it always has “a strong sense of terroir,” he says. It’s always made in Jalisco, whether that means the mountain region (sierra), where the piñas are cooked in above-ground clay ovens, or on the coast (costa), where in-ground pits are used.

“It’s a humble spirit,” says Valencia.

In the 1700s, when Mexico was under Spanish rule, crafty distillers named their spirit “raicilla” to avoid paying taxes assigned to traditional mezcal.

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Back then, it was often distilled hastily, usually just once, says Valencia, “and it was more of a moonshine.” Today, it’s made at a more measured pace and often distilled multiple times. In June 2019, after years of debate, raicilla was given an official Denominación de Origen (DO).

Bottlings can vary widely, depending on the agave used and the producer.

Some are smoky, others are bright and crisp. Valencia describes raicilla’s flavor as “intense,” often showing an herbaceous finish. “It’s hard to put it in a box,” he says.

Raicilla appears increasingly on cocktail menus. Valencia mixes it into a Negroni riff, as well as the Raicilla Siesta, made with Campari, grapefruit juice, simple syrup and lime.

Try It

Mezonte Japo Raicilla

Estancia Raicilla

Las Perlas de Jalisco Raicilla

Any bottling from La Venenosa

Bottles of Agave
Photo by Paola Murray

Bacanora

Technically, Bacanora is also a type of mezcal. Think of it as how Scotch and rye are types of whiskey.

But Bacanora has its own unique history. It began thousands of years ago as a fermented agave beverage  made by the indigenous people of the Sonoran Desert in Mexico’s northern region.

When Spanish colonizers arrived in the 1500s, they brought European stills. The process to make  Bacanora transformed gradually into ancestral styles of mezcal production, with agave piñas roasted in earthen pits, crushed with hatchets or giant wooden mallets, fermented using wild yeast, and then distilled.

But production of Bacanora was banned in the early 1900s, in tandem with U.S. Prohibition-era restrictions. It wasn’t legalized again until 1992. Eight years later, Bacanora was granted its own DO designation.

Because production was long illegal, the craft was quietly passed from generation to generation, and many stills that remain in use today were cobbled together from materials ranging from steel oil drums to repurposed car parts.

Bacanora is made from a single variety of agave, Sonora’s native yaquina, or Angustifolia agave. This gives it a distinctive character, says Valencia; his La Contenta has served Bacanora in copitas and cocktails since it opened in 2015.

Some describe the flavor as peppery, earthy or vegetal. But what really differentiates Bacanora is its texture, says Valencia.

“It’s like Cognac versus [other] brandies,” he says. “It’s more silky or creamy than regular mezcal.”

Among those who know, it’s also become a popular addition to cocktails.

At Raised by Wolves in La Jolla, California, one of the top-selling drinks on the menu is Bacanora mixed with pineapple cider.

Try It

Rancho Tepúa Blanco Bacanora

Sotol

Not technically an agave spirit, this is made from the “desert spoon” plant, also called Dasylirion or sotol, which is related more closely to an evergreen shrub than agave. Until recently, sotol was considered part of Mexico’s extended family of agave distillates, and many still think of it as agaveadjacent, so it’s grandfathered into the category.

“Visually, the two plants are very similar,” says Ivy Mix, author of Spirits of Latin America (Ten Speed Press, 2020) and proprietor of Leyenda, in Brooklyn, New York, which celebrates spirits from the Caribbean and Latin America.

“Sotol was even miscategorized as an agave until DNA testing came along to tell us that in fact, they’re just very similar-looking,” she says.

The spirit is made the same way as mezcal and other agave liquors. It’s roasted in an underground pit, then milled, fermented and distilled. From a sustainability perspective, though, Mix says sotol has an advantage.

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“Unlike agave, where you need to dig up the root and replant the field, [desert spoon] would just regrow,” she says.

In Mexico, sotol is made in Durango, Chihuahua and Coahuilia. Production was widespread among Spanish colonists during the mid-16th century, says Mix. It’s been used by indigenous peoples in religious ceremonies, as well as a medicinal remedy for centuries.

Sotol’s flavor tends to be bright and grassy, although it can have musky, earthy or vegetal characteristics.

The spirit’s evergreen roots can impart a “crisp, clean, piney” quality, says Mix.

A hardy plant, desert spoon thrives in both desert and forest climates. It can grow as far north as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. In recent years, a handful of Texas-made sotols have sprouted.

In her As She So Told cocktail, Mix plays up what she describes as the “mossy-yet-minty” flavor of Clande Sotol. She mixes it with Tequila, along with chamomile syrup and Clear Creek Douglas Fir Brandy.

Try It

Clande Sotol

Any bottling from Hacienda de Chihuahua

Sotol Por Siempre

Published on March 4, 2021
Topics: Spirits